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How Many Tamils Live in Canada? The Limitations to Official Data on Tamils

In a data-driven world with a wealth of information at our fingertips, how could it be so challenging to answer what seems like such a simple question?

As diaspora Tamils living in Canada, there’s one question we have likely been asked at some point or another: how many Tamils live in Canada? And while we probably hoped Google would return a single unambiguous estimate from a reliable source, we likely found ourselves stumbling upon multiple different results – some as small as 50,000 and others as large as 300,000. In a data-driven world with a wealth of information at our fingertips, how could it be so challenging to answer what seems like such a simple question?

Our individual responses to the Census play a key role.

What is the Census?

When we want to find reliable statistics on Canadians, often, the first place we should turn to is Statistics Canada. Every 5 years, Statistics Canada conducts the Census of Population in order to paint a statistical portrait of our country and its diverse population. As the largest survey in the country, the Census covers a broad range of topics on demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics. It serves as one of the most important sources of data on Canadians. The results are not only used by private citizens but also by academics, governments, businesses and non-profit organizations to support research, funding, marketing and resource planning. Countless key decisions are also based on Census data including where to locate schools and hospitals, how to improve public transportation and who to target for housing assistance and social services.

One of the most important benefits of the Census, however, is its ability to narrow in on small geographies and specific population groups. The data collected on different target groups such as lone-parents, low-income households, children, seniors or linguistic minorities is what helps us better understand our communities, their strengths and their challenges, and what can ultimately allow us to advocate for improved government programs.

Counting Tamils in the Census

Fortunately, the Census allows us to use a few different variables to narrow in on the Tamil community: (1) mother tongue, (2) knowledge of non-official languages, (3) languages spoken at home and (4) ethnic origin. But there is an important limitation: none of these variables can exhaustively count the number of Tamils in Canada. There are a few reasons behind this, including the particular definitions of these Census concepts and the fact that the Tamil identity as an ethnicity, culture and language is not associated to a single native country. We’ll explore these reasons in depth below.

Since many view Tamil primarily as a linguistic identity, most people think of mother tongue as the best way to identify all Tamils. Yet, the definition of this variable is also more complicated than people may assume. Mother tongue is defined by Statistics Canada as “the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood” by an individual. For many ethnic Tamils, Tamil may meet these criteria. However, in general, we know that the immigrant-language transmission rate is not 100%. In other words, not 100% of the children of immigrants will have the same mother tongue as their parents. We also know that while many factors can influence intergenerational language transmission, including the age of mothers, the gender of children, the household composition and the education level of parents, typically, the rate of transmission declines from one generation to another. As a result, we can safely assume that many individuals who may consider themselves ethnically Tamil would be excluded from a count based on mother tongue alone.

Table 1: Tamil reported as mother tongue (single responses) by generation status1, 2016 Census

Total population First generation Second generation Third generation or more
Mother tongue – Tamil 140,170 114,875 25,270 25

1‘First generation’ includes persons who were born outside Canada. ‘Second generation’ includes persons who were born in Canada and have at least one parent born outside Canada. For the most part, these are the children of immigrants. ‘Third generation or more’ includes persons who were born in Canada with both parents born in Canada.

Alternatively, the variable on knowledge of non-official languages is more inclusive. Defined as one’s “ability to conduct a conversation in a language other than English or French,” this variable can be used to estimate the number of Tamil speakers in Canada. Although more inclusive than mother tongue, using knowledge of non-official languages can, however, still omit many ethnic Tamils who may not speak the language well enough to carry a conversation. Despite this, according to data from the 2016 Census, using this variable would result in the highest estimate of Tamils in Canada.

Similarly, the variable on languages spoken at home is also more inclusive than mother tongue. In order to report Tamil as a home language, the respondent must speak Tamil at home on a regular basis. However, in 2016, the number of respondents who reported Tamil as a home language was considerably smaller than the number who reported having knowledge of Tamil. As language transmission rates decline and families adopt the official languages at home, it is difficult to tell whether Tamil will continue to be spoken at home among second and third generation families.

This leaves us with one last and important variable: ethnic origin. Statistics Canada defines ethnic origin as “the ethnic or cultural origin(s) of a person’s ancestors.” The 2016 Census results allow us to analyze data for over 275 different ethnic groups in Canada. But ethnicity is a difficult concept to measure and there is no internationally recognized classification for it. Respondents are therefore asked to self-report their ethnic origin as write-in responses and to specify as many origins as applicable. For data quality reasons, a minimum threshold of responses must be attained in order for data on a specific ethnic group to be published. While this would be the perfect opportunity to identify as ‘Tamil’, the write-in option also provides respondents with a lot of liberty. Some Tamils may identify solely as Sri Lankan, Indian, Malaysian, South Asian and some may even identify solely as Canadian.

Although Tamils are not the only ethnic group that might be dispersed among different categories, this challenge may be more pronounced for Tamils. Unlike Greeks are to Greece, Italians are to Italy or Japanese are to Japan, Tamils do not have a distinct native land. As a result, it will always be challenging to expect a majority of Tamils to identify the same way in the Census.

While the liberty to self-identify as any ethnic origin may have presented challenges for us in past Censuses, it can also be used to our advantage. ‘Ethnic origin’ is the only variable in the Census that is a reflection of each respondent’s perception. Helping Tamils understand the concept of ethnic origin and encouraging them to identify accordingly can play a key role in more accurately estimating the number of Tamils living in Canada.

Table 2: Population of Tamils in Canada by Ethnic Origin and Language Variables, 2016 Census

Population of Tamils
Ethnic origin 48,670
Mother tongue 157,125
Language regularly spoken at home 171,470
Knowledge of non-official language 189,860

The figures in the table refer to the total response counts, including both single and multiple responses. That is, the counts indicate the number of persons who reported ‘Tamil’ as their only ethnic origin, mother tongue or home language, or in addition to other responses. (Ex.: Tamil and Canadian; Tamil and English; etc.)

Specifying your Ethnic Origin

Although there are several advantages to having demographic and socioeconomic statistics on the Tamil community as a whole, Tamils shouldn’t feel limited to identifying as ‘Tamil’ either. There are important benefits to being even more specific. While Tamils from different geographic regions share many cultural similarities, the realities they face upon immigration are often very different. In 2016, among immigrants who landed since 1980, 43% of Sri Lankan-born immigrants were refugees compared to only 3% of Indian-born immigrants. Almost half (46%), of Indian-born immigrants were admitted as economic immigrants.

Immigrants admitted through different classes differ not only in education, language skills and economic resources, but also in pre-migration circumstances and post-migration experiences. These differences may have a bearing not only on their own socioeconomic outcomes, such as their labour status and income, but also on those of their children and subsequent generations. By identifying more specifically as, for example, Eelam Tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, or Tamils from any other region, the data can also reflect the unique experiences of Tamils from different native lands.

Your Participation in the 2021 Census

The next Census will take place on May 11th, 2021. Questions on mother tongue and languages spoken at home will be included in the short-form questionnaire, which is distributed to 100% of the Canadian population. Questions on knowledge of non-official languages and ethnic origin will be included in the detailed questionnaire only, which is distributed to 1 in 4 Canadian households. The ethnic origin(s) one wishes to identify with in the Census is ultimately a personal decision. However, correctly interpreting the data and recognizing the impact of our responses is essential to increasing the quality of the data we have on our community. With a simple gesture, you can make sure that Tamils are accounted for and that our voice is heard.

The Tamil Figure

Just an average girl with an above-average love for stats. Based in Montreal, Canada. Interested in preserving cultures, building a stronger community and driving positive change.

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One Comment

  1. This is very well-written. Thank you for taking the time to research and sharing your insights. I think it’s great that you are stressing the importance of the census and encouraging everyone to respond to it as they see fit.

    I do however believe that Table 1 may be misleading. It’s normal, or expected, that number of Tamil reported as mother tongue will decrease as you go further down the line in generation status. Table 1 could be interpreted as a drastic loss of Tamil identity as families grow in generations. But in actuality, the major reason for the low number of 25 for third generation or more is because the large majority of Tamils haven’t been in Canada for more than two generations.

    Regardless, I love the article, and keep up the good work.

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